#16. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame

By dancingintheraine

December 11, 2011

Category: Uncategorized

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     Number 16 on the Top 100 BBC Book List of 2011 is The Wind In the Willows.  And while I know I read this back in grade school, I could not, with a clear conscience, check it off the list without reading it again.

     In 1908 Grahame retired from his position as secretary of the Bank of England. He moved back to Cookham, Berkshire, where he had been brought up and spent his time by the River Thames doing much as the animal characters in his book do—namely, as one of the most famous phrases from the book says, “simply messing about in boats”—and wrote down the bed-time stories he had been telling his son Alistair, starting on Alastair’s fourth birthday.   The Wind in the Willows is a classic of children’s literature by Kenneth Grahame, first published in that same year (1909 in the US). The principle characters of these stories are four anthropomorphised animal characters who live in a pastoral version of England around a river, though to the animals, it is “the River” (author’s emphasis). At the time of the work’s publication, Grahame had already published four books of fiction. He was most well known for his collections of stories The Golden Age and its sequel Dream Days. Though the works were written about children, they were not written for children. The Wind in the Willows was not initially well received because it deviated from his previous works; however, it eventually became the work that he is most famous for, enjoyed by children and adults alike.  Alternately slow moving and fast paced, the novel is notable for its mixture of mysticism, adventure, morality, and camaraderie and celebrated for its evocation of the nature of the Thames valley.

     A small interesting note here is that The Wind in the Willows was in its thirty-first printing when then-famous playwright, A. A. Milne, who loved it, adapted a part of it for stage as Toad of Toad Hall in 1929.  Also, the Catholic church issued a warning regarding Pan, stating, “The mystical digression at the center of the book “The Piper at the gates of dawn” needs to be explained. The god of nature in the form of Pan is a pagan myth.”

      The Wind in the Willows was a book that we all greatly loved and admired when we were little, and could read aloud or alone, over and over and over. I confess that, as an adult, I did not enjoy the book as much as I remembered enjoying it as a child.  I did, however, enjoy the format of this book.  It is, in a way, two separate books put into one. There are, on the one hand, those chapters concerned with the adventures of Toad; and on the other hand there are those chapters that explore human emotions – the emotions of fear, nostalgia, awe, wanderlust. I was drawn to the second group, of which “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” was, by far, my favorite.

     There are several inspirations for this book that must be mentioned.  First, Mapledurham House in Berkshire was an inspiration for Toad Hall.  After looking at pictures of Mapledurham House, I can clearly envision Toad living in such a place.  The village of Lerryn, Cornwall lays claim to being the setting for the book.  I can see this as being a possibility when I reviewed hundreds of pictures of the waterways and rolling countryside.  Simon Winchester has suggested that the character of Ratty was based on Frederick Furnivall, a keen oarsman and acquaintance of Kenneth Grahame.   There are articles in The Scotsman  and Oban Times  that have suggested The Wind in the Willows was inspired by the Crinan Canal in Scotland, because Grahame spent some of his childhood in Ardrishaig.

     There is a theory that the idea for the story arose when its author saw a water vole beside the River Pang in Berkshire, southern England. A 29 hectare extension to the nature reserve at Moor Copse, near Tidmarsh Berkshire, was acquired in January 2007 by the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust

     The principle characters in the novel, though they all have their faults, are idealized in many ways. Several virtues are epitomized in Mole, Rat, Badger, and Toad, so much so that they become themes. There are numerous examples of hospitality, forgiveness, compassion, generosity, and humility. Even the arrogant Toad is able to humble himself and put aside his conceited ways in the end, having matured though a succession of trying circumstances with the guidance and help of loyal friends.  

     Kenneth Grahame, Secretary to the Bank of England in the 1890’s, wrote two successful books about childhood (‘Golden Age’ and ‘Dream Days’) which were aimed firmly at adults. Then came ‘Wind in the Willows’, which caused a good deal of consternation as its dressed-up talking animals could be enjoyed on the child’s level, but decidedly more so on an adult-and-child’s level. How to comprehend this chimerical beast, destined as it was to become the true classic of the three books?

Fortunately, the book had two powerful advocates which ensured its success. In the USA President Theodore Roosevelt wrote from the White House to Kenneth Grahame to say how greatly his whole family enjoyed it, and in Britain A.A. Milne made a very popular play out of it called ‘Toad of Toad Hall’. And indeed Mole, Rat, Badger, Toad, and Otter can be enjoyed simply for their distinctive characters and their adventures, major and minor, by the riverbank. Personally I must admit that I had to make a certain effort to suspend my disbelief (as to a lesser extent for ‘Animal Farm’) and allow myself to enjoy the humorous characterizations and banter – there is no Narnian or Middlearth magic to get you ‘over the hump’. However, there is a great deal to enjoy at this child’s level once you get into it.

     Then there are the elements for more adult entertainment. Mr. Grahame clearly had a high old time writing this book; when Toad is arrested he indulges himself in a page of Shakespeare: ‘Then the brutal minions of the law fell upon the hapless Toad…past men-at-arms in casquet and corselet of steel…past ancient warders, their halberds leant against the wall…till they reached the door of the grimmest dungeon…’. Then there is the gentle parody on the positivistic scientific method when Rat and Mole have to find Badger’s front door in the snow by logical deduction; the Otter (that gay blade) describing how even rabbits can be made to talk sense if you just give them a bit of a slapping; the awe of the numinous on the river island when they have a vision of the good god Pan looking after the lost child otter; the wily sea-faring Rat mesmerizing our River-Rat into going to sea with him; and finally the grand battle to recapture Toad Hall from those villains the (….) – but it would be unfair to reveal that plot element and ruin some of the suspense. To be read more than once.”

      The Wind in the Willows is a children’s story that lives in the hearts and minds of its readers well into adulthood. With its subtle blend of anthropomorphism and very-British humor, the book is a classic tale of river life and friendship.

The Wind in the Willows is surprisingly dark and thrilling in places–particularly in the later chapters and the battle of Toad Hall. The book provides something that few novels of its time can claim: all-round entertainment for all ages. The story confirms the power of close friends and courage to make a difference in the lives of others.

     The true joy of The Wind in the Willows is the image of English life put in such a way as to be easily understood and envisioned: a very Georgian, upper-middle-class take on the world in which the countryside is covered by an incessant summer time and which days can be spent idling by the riverside and watching the world go by. Because of the success of The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame was able to leave his unhappy job in a bank and live very much the life he represented in the books pages–a life full of cake at tea time, and the soothing sound of the river running past.

     The novel is also very much loved for its characters: the slightly pompous and ridiculous toad (who is completely carried away by his latest obsession), and the wise old badger (who is crotchety, but who has very high regard for his friends). They are characters who embody the English values of fortitude and good humor. But, these creatures are also incredibly honorable and willing to fight (even to the death) for their little piece of England.

     There is something ineffably comforting about Grahame’s little story–familiar and also very powerful. The animal characters are completely humanized, but their personalities and characteristics are still linked to their animal’s characters. The Wind in the Willows is wryly humorous and tremendously fun. This book is one of the greatest children’s books of all time.

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